Stage struck

Why bother turning hit film 'Festen' into a play? Because, says Daniel Rosenthal, the Dogme movement was always more about the theatre than the cinema...
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The Independent Culture

When the Danish directors Thomas Vinterberg and Lars von Trier launched their Dogme 95 film-making manifesto, they were reacting against the emotionally manipulative and formulaic Hollywood narratives that they saw assuming ever greater control of the world's cinemas. In taking the Dogme "vow of chastity" that bans genre movies, "superficial action (murders, weapons etc)" and all but the most basic techniques (no sets or artificial lighting, no post-produced sound or music, hand-held cameras only), the pair forced themselves to focus all their and their audiences' attention on dialogue and character - two ingredients that have always been at the heart of good theatre.

When the Danish directors Thomas Vinterberg and Lars von Trier launched their Dogme 95 film-making manifesto, they were reacting against the emotionally manipulative and formulaic Hollywood narratives that they saw assuming ever greater control of the world's cinemas. In taking the Dogme "vow of chastity" that bans genre movies, "superficial action (murders, weapons etc)" and all but the most basic techniques (no sets or artificial lighting, no post-produced sound or music, hand-held cameras only), the pair forced themselves to focus all their and their audiences' attention on dialogue and character - two ingredients that have always been at the heart of good theatre.

In the first Dogme feature, Vinterberg's Festen (The Celebration, 1998), the combination of these technical restrictions, raw ensemble performances, a country house setting and a Hamlet-influenced story of a son exposing the rotten state of a Danish family, took cinema very close to its theatrical roots. So this week's new stage adaptation of Festen seems as natural a development as von Trier's progression from Dogme work on The Idiots (1999) to the dazzling fusion of film and theatre in his latest feature, Dogville, in which the eponymous American township resembles the rehearsal room for a large stage production, its shops and homes identified only by chalk lines on the studio floor, leaving the invisible walls and surrounding mountains to be filled in by what Shakespeare called the audience's "imaginary forces".

Von Trier has acknowledged his debt to Brecht, Thornton Wilder's Our Town and the RSC's Nicholas Nickleby, and with Dogville still in cinemas, Festen popular on DVD and David Eldridge's adaptation about to open at the Almeida, the Dogme/theatre synergy is approaching a creative peak.

"What we did on Festen was very closely related to theatre, I guess the closest that you can get within the framework of cinema," says Vinterberg, co-author with Mogens Rukov of the award-winning screenplay in which the lavish 60th birthday party of a respected hotelier, Helge Klingenfeldt, is disrupted by his eldest son, Christian, who makes devastating revelations of childhood abuse.

Vinterberg's view was recently echoed by Trine Dyrholm, who played Pia, the maid in love with Christian, when she told Danish magazine Film that the Festen shoot was "somewhat like working in a dynamic, tightly knit theatre troupe." But why, exactly? Well, cast and crew had time to build up an intimate rapport while based at a single location, the rural hotel; by the end of their run, the Almeida's Festen company (with Rufus Norris directing a cast headed by Jonny Lee Miller) will have been based for three months at its north London rehearsal rooms and auditorium.

During the shoot, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle's hand-held digital video camera gave him such mobility that the actors sometimes couldn't see where he was, explains Vinterberg, "so they had to act in all directions at all times, in case they were on camera" - just like stage actors who are constantly in view of the audience.

The bruising authenticity of the performances in his debut feature arose, Vinterberg believes, "because Dogme creates room for actors to perform in a way that is more theatrical and more liberating than is normal on film sets. They do not have to hit their marks on the floor, and all the lamps and dollies and other equipment is taken away. The Dogme rule that you can't add sound after filming meant that during the birthday dinner all the [off-camera] sound of knives and forks had to be done on every take. Everyone had to act in every shot, not just the one actor in close-up, pretending there are a lot of people around him [as would happen on a non-Dogme film]." In one crucial respect, of course, Festen was anything but theatrical, because Vinterberg, like von Trier in Dogville, was still armed with the most potent of all film-making tools: control of point of view. "The major, major difference is that in the editing room I took the power completely away from the actors," he says, "and even though it looks like a wild monster, Festen is a very, very controlled film." When they saw it, some of Vinterberg's cast couldn't recognise their performances, because he had removed or reshaped so much of their work - an occupational hazard they might face in other screen roles, but never in the theatre.

Vinterberg, whose second feature, It's All About Love, abandoned the Dogme rules, claims that "even during filming I thought it would be obvious to make Festen into a play," and in 1999, not long after it reached British cinemas, Canadian producer Marla Rubin had the same idea and secured the stage rights. Vinterberg, Rukov and another writer called Bo hr. Hansen wrote a stage version for her which follows the film script very closely. There have been Danish, German, French, Italian, Swedish and Polish productions of this script already. The Polish Festen came to London's Sadler's Wells in 2002 and was a hit-and-miss affair - mainly because its director, Grzegorz Jarzyna, failed to solve many of the basic staging problems created by the film's fluent cross-cutting between at least a dozen points in and around the hotel. Several crucial scenes in the hotel kitchen were played so far upstage that one would have needed opera glasses to appreciate the acting. But David Eldridge's adaptation, which Rubin commissioned from him in 2001, is a less filmic affair.

Giving Festen a more theatrical rhythm and intimacy were two of the principal challenges faced by Eldridge, who since making his debut with the council estate drama Serving It Up in 1996 has written several plays which, like Festen, are driven by what he calls "huge, life-changing emotional transactions."

He chose to assume that nobody in the theatre would have seen the film, and set out "to find a shape for the story that related most intimately to the shape of the film in its rawest form. The film's intimacy comes through the use of the hand-held camera and at the Almeida it comes partially through the fact that the audience sits really close to the action and partially because I've placed less than a dozen people around the dinner table, not the 80-odd guests from the film." Eldridge has blurred or erased the film's spatial boundaries, deftly conflated some of its speaking roles, downplayed others and omitted completely some memorable characters (notably Michelle, the maid who's had an affair with Christian's volatile brother, Michael). Lee Miller, who plays Christian and who watched Vinterberg's "brilliant" film for the first time two weeks into rehearsals, says the reduced cast size gives the story a completely new dynamic. "If you're at a function with a lot of people and someone drops a bombshell, as Christian does, it's a lot easier to paper over the cracks, for everything to continue as normal," he says. "But if there's only about 12 of you, there's nowhere to hide."

Director Rufus Norris says he has found himself in "a dangerous position": obliged to set aside his boundless admiration for the film (his all-time favourite) "to ensure that we celebrate the theatricality of David's script in a way that takes the story away from Dogme and is not just a homage to the film. Several theatre friends have asked me 'Why bother staging Festen when it's been done on film?' I can see why they'd say that, and a lot of people will judge us against the film, but we are doing something bold and different, trying to create a visual language that's organic to this piece of theatre.

"Vinterberg had terrific freedom to film from room to room and even more freedom in the editing suite. But he didn't have the freedom of rehearsing for weeks and making use of the choices that actors make in that environment." This opportunity to give theatrical voice to a screen narrative explains why for every friend who's asked "Why bother staging Festen?", another has called Norris a lucky bastard.

If his production succeeds, this could be the beginning of a beautiful new friendship between Dogme and theatre. Vinterberg agrees with my suggestion that several of the other nine Danish films made under the vow of chastity could safely navigate the journey from screen to stage, and Rubin is already in discussions about future Dogme stage projects. For my money, Søren Kragh-Jacobsen's Mifune (1999) - centred around a newly-wed Copenhagen man, his mentally handicapped older brother and the prostitute who takes refuge in their rundown farmhouse - was second-division Dogme, but would probably require minimal tweaking to make an engaging five-hander, playable on a single set. Given the long tradition of successful stage dramas set behind bars, there could also be a theatrical future for the newest Danish Dogme entry, Annette K Olesen's witty and intensely moving In Your Hands, whose tale of the chaplain and inmates at a women's prison has echoes of a play premiered at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre two years ago, Rona Munro's Iron.

Having borrowed liberally from theatre, Dogme could be repaying its debt, with interest, for years to come.

'Festen': Almeida Theatre, London N1 (020 7359 4404), previews from Thursday, opens 25 March, to 1 May

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